Saturday, July 30, 2005

The Crusades

A friend of mine, Dennis, just drew my attention to a web-site on the Crusades.

The Crusades have been a sore point with me. When I was a kid, the consensus among most educated Americans was that these wars were a legitimate effort by Christian Europe to liberate the Holy Land from the Moslems who had recently barred Christian pilgrims from visiting the sacred sites. Though only one Crusade was an unqualified success, and most were disasters, the Crusades were regarded as a noble, even heroic enterprise.

Over the last generation, the conventional view of the Crusades came into disrepute. Secularists portrayed the Crusaders as bloodthirsty mercenaries, bringing death and misery to Moslems, Byzantines, Jews and anyone else who stood between them and the wealth of peaceful, idyllic, twelfth-century Islam.

Some Evangelical Protestant and Orthodox Christian controversialists leapt upon the bandwagon (unlikely bed-fellows with the secular humanist crowd) And emphasized the sack of Constantinople during the Fourth Crusade as evidence of the hypocrisy of the Catholic Church for calling a Crusade against the Moslems and then attacking the Orthodox Christians.

In my mind, and I've said this before, the Crusades are the only reason that we all don't speak Arabic right now and pray five times daily while facing toward Mecca.

But that Constantinople business really has troubled me. The sack of that city by Crusaders in 1204 did play a role in the collapse of the Byzantine empire, dated to the final conquest of Constantinople, now Istanbul, by the Moslems in 1453. In turn, this led to a Moslem foothold in Europe that steadily advanced until stopped by the decisive Catholic victory at the Battle of Vienna in 1683. Since then, Moslems have maintained a presence in the Balkans and turned Istanbul into a major Moslem capital on the European continent.

Byzantium might have lasted longer or never fallen at all had the Crusaders not sacked its capital. Alternatively, it might have fallen sooner had the Crusaders not given Islam the fight of its life for two centuries in the Holy Land. The balance of good and bad of the Crusades with respect to the venerable Eastern Roman Empire will simply never be known. However, the notion that an enterprise called by a pope could have resulted directly in the fall of a Christian capital does call into question the credentials of the See of Peter as a force for good in the High Middle Ages. How can an enterprise instituted by the Pope possibly go so bad?

As it happens, that isn't exactly the way it was.

At the Crusades Information page my friend Dennis directed me to, there is a quick guide to each major Crusade. The infamous Fourth Crusade is discussed there. Some interesting details:

--The Pope (Innocent III) might have called for the Crusade, but he withdrew his support and excommunicated the Crusaders long before they reached Constantinople. You see, they had already sacked another city which was under Papal protection.

--After the Crusaders had been excommunicated, they had actually been hired as mercenaries by a claimant to the imperial thrown of Byzantium to place him in power.

--After they placed the new emperor (Alexius IV) on his thrown, the new ruler of Byzantium broke his deal, paying the newly excommunicated mercenaries only half the bounty promised them and refusing to join them on the campaign they still hoped (so optimistically!) to stage in the Holy Land.

--That's when they sacked Constantinople.

Now, it isn't like that makes it all better. But it does make it clear that what these guys did was not done in the name of the Church.